Lectures

Writing Life No. 11: An interview with Susan Frohlick

This article is part of the series:
Figure 1. Sue’s writing space in the beautiful Syilx (Okanagan) Nation territory. With Scooter, the family’s unruly cat.

The development of our writing dyad has unfolded organically over the past ten years. When we first met, neither of us imagined we would both be writing our second books at the same time and during a global pandemic. But here we are, and it’s especially lovely because our dyad counteracts some of the hardships related to the pandemic. I first met Sue in 2011 at the American Anthropological Association meetings in Montreal, Canada, and was pleased when she asked me and Frayda Cohen to guest edit a special volume with her on Kinship Travel for Anthropologica based on our panel. Our shared interest in the intersections of reproduction with travel and tourism, in both our writing and teaching, has fueled serial collaborations over the years, including subsequent conference panels and guest lectures, and many conversations about the challenges of doing research that brings us into the intimacies of people’s lives along with the tricky terrains of writing about conception, pregnancy, abortion, surrogacy, sperm, ovum…

In the summer of 2018, the year I was tenured, I was able to visit Sue in Kelowna at the University of British Columbian Okanagan campus for the “Reproductive Mobilities Workshop” we co-hosted together with Kristin Lozanski. I remember Sue picking me up from the airport and as soon as I settled into the passenger seat of her car confessing to feeling a post-tenure depression. Sue took the cue, and made sure that we enjoyed a planning session on paddle boards on Lake Okanagan (under record-breaking smoky skies) and some wonderful meals on the deck of her condo before the busy event took place. After the three-day workshop ended and before I returned home to Texas, with her gentle bullmastiff Lucy, Sue took me for a hike while the wildfires burned orange and red in the late summer skies. On that hike a conversation bloomed about both of us wanting to write a different kind of ethnographic account than our first books, which were largely written with tenure in mind. The conversation stuck. But she had a department to oversee, and I was busy with teaching, so our mutual book writing was put on hold for a while longer.

By 2020, Sue’s administrative leave had started and I, too, was ready to turn to the writing project I had been living with in my head for too many years. Over the past year and a half, we have been checking in with one another (nearly) every Friday, having Skype conversations monthly, and regularly sharing drafts of proposals, chapters, ethnographic poetry, and whatnot with one another. I wanted to interview Sue because we have had so many conversations about the writing process, the act of giving feedback, and of receiving feedback, and also because of the way our writing dyad has inspired me to keep my writing moving forward, no matter what the pace. The following interview happened via Skype, which is how we typically meet during these pandemic times, although as soon as the US/Canada border opens an in-person writing retreat is our dream.

Amy Speier (AS): Over the past year, you and I have been working on our respective book ethnographies on different kinds of reproductive routes, mine on surrogacy in the US and yours on cross-border pregnancy in the Caribbean of Costa Rica. We’ve created this very intimate writing group, our dyad. And, aside from the obvious deadlines that we keep setting for ourselves, how do you find writing groups of different types – not just ours – helpful for your practice?

Sue Frohlick (SF): Well, the short answer is I find them extremely helpful. But it has been an evolution. I was thinking about Writing Life, and it struck me that thinking of myself as a writer is actually fairly new– and exciting, and it’s where I want to be. I think I had to get to that point in my career and my own level of comfort with thinking out loud, and making mistakes, and being awkward in my own sentence structure, and all that kind of stuff to feel okay in being part of a group.

All of us have probably been in writing groups that fizzled out. Not bad experiences, but they just didn’t really go anywhere. I think for me, where things really started moving really well and productively in more of a collaborative situation was with graduate students. In deciding it was time in my career to co-author with them and learn together, which has been fantastic.

AS: Oh, nice.

SF: I’ve had the opportunity to create retreats essentially where I host students at the university for a few days and we write together. I want to do more of that. It’s really powerful. But what you and I are doing is something else altogether. For me, it is essential support for my solo writing experience. With the ethnography that I’m writing, as with yours, we’re both solo authors. Well, we have all kinds of interlocutors in our heads and we’re not writing “alone” alone. We have our dogs, and I am lucky to have the cat around too occasionally (when my daughter comes home for a bit). I really love that you chose the adjective “intimate,” because I do feel like there is something in a two-person writing group that allows me to feel very comfortable. And to become quite familiar with your material as well as with mine. I think that through our regular exchanges I’m becoming – you might disagree with me on this – better able to comment on your writing.

AS: I think it’s a matter of timing too. You and I are both on the same page in terms of producing a book. We have talked a lot about – when do you write the prospectus, when do you write the introduction, when do you leave a chapter alone and move on to the next? There’s this dance, right? Between thinking about the big picture and laying it out on a whiteboard (as you do) and, then, the very intimate details. As you said, we have all these different interlocutors from our fieldwork in our head. So, when you’re in the initial stages, how do you plan out the book?

SF: The manuscript that I’m deep into now is very different than the proposal I put together, oh my, probably three years ago. Now that I’ve finished ten (long!) years as Department Head I can turn my focus to a brewing interest – learning to write ethnographies well. As I started to read and think about writing, when the time finally came to sit down and delve seriously into this manuscript, it was through a conversation with a former editor of an academic press (a hike, actually, with the wonderful Anne Brackenbury) that helped me figure out what the book was actually about. 

AS: I feel like every academic has heard the sage advice of “you need to make writing a daily practice.” It’s not necessarily true that I have found ways to do that, but that is my goal. I think that’s the key, to just keep writing. The point of having this dyad for me is that we simply keep each other going. I can hope to have a full chapter, but even if I get a part of it done the checking in helps me achieve that. So, I think writing daily is so important.

SF: I think for both of us we had a turning point, one of those “aha” moments, when we realized that we needed the dyad to work for, not against, us. There was that point where you were freaking out, you weren’t going to be able to submit anything, and then we just suddenly stopped, “Well, wait a minute. We could just meet for our scheduled Skype meeting and talk about where you’re at.” It doesn’t have to look the same every time we meet. The idea is to keep that flow, keep things going in some fashion.

AS: What I appreciate about our dyad is its flexibility. If one deadline doesn’t work, we push it back a week and it’s okay. But as you said, if I don’t have anything to give you, we can still meet on Skype and have a conversation to get my ideas flowing. And then I can get back to my work and feel fresh. So, you’re right. We’ve both had conversations about what we do each day too. What’s your daily practice? Can you talk about maybe not your idealized daily writing, but your actual daily writing?

SF: It shifted with the reality that I am on sabbatical during a pandemic. Instead of being in Australia and Iceland where I was planning to spend time with colleagues discussing ideas together and finding inspiration through that, I have had to change how the ideas will percolate. I’m not a Zoom person, nor do I like social media, so the challenges to communications brought on by the pandemic made me feel panicky at first. But fairly soon I saw instead a very rare chance to stay put in fact, and devote myself to finding the rhythm and pleasures of writing at home. The pandemic has negatively affected me, for sure, but it has transpired into a fairly creative year for me.

I’m older now too, from when I wrote my first book mostly in the evenings after a full day’s work, and feel like my brain works so much better in the morning. At the start of my leave I liked to get up before dawn, write, and then walk my dog. And then write for another hour or two in the  afternoon. But that’s not what happens so much anymore. Now, what I try for every day is the same process. I’m not fixated on the mornings. I’ve found that my days fluctuate so much more during these COVID times. I feel dedicated to the idea of doing something that engages me with the book before I walk my dog. Honestly, that is the magic. I don’t need to write even a sentence or two, but I need at the very least to reread something that I’ve written the day before.

Because I’m trying my hand at ethnographic poetry for the first time in my life, reading poetry is an important part of the process. Reading and perhaps deconstructing a poem and then going for a dog walk seems to work really well. My dog is actually pretty integral to the process. She tells me when it’s time to get outside. She is grounding for me. Lucy – and my ambient music. I suffer with tinnitus so background sounds are essential to help me focus. The right kind of sounds, though! I’ve become obsessed with finding the tracks that work well with writing, Brian Eno’s Music for Airports (1977), remains a much-loved favourite of mine, and gives away my age as well!

AS: I agree that it’s really important to step away. You try to tackle whatever it is you’re doing, whether it be rereading a work you’re going to integrate; or rereading your fieldnotes; or whatever it might be. And then walking the dog and just having that, the clean air – or clean-ish air in Texas. And, creating that habit of moving, and getting out of your space. And then you’re sort of refreshed too. You have the time to process. You mentioned the ethnographic poetry. If you could talk about the process of deciding to be a little more creative?

SF: I think that both of us writing our second monographs does probably inspire each of us more than we realize. I’ve waited for the opportunity to make a shift from thinking of myself as a social science scholar to a creatively thinking writer as well. Through this current process of engaging with what’s broadly called “experimental ethnography” I am trying to see what I’m actually good at and what I am okay just walking away from. So, I’m actually much more afraid but also more invigorated in this second book that is taking a little more of a creative approach.

AS: That makes sense. It’s with any risk-taking that you might feel scared, but also it makes it more interesting for you.

Being part of a writing group involves giving feedback and hearing feedback. That can be painful to our egos. I think as we grow as human beings and as scholars, we get better at receiving feedback. But how do you mentally prepare for it?

SF: I remember that time where we both felt the same way– and thankfully it happened simultaneously. I felt deflated after one of our meetings, and then I found out that you had felt the same way. I was devastated that I had a role in you not feeling very great about your writing. That was a great lesson for me. A reminder, that when you write together or are in a writing group, it is about a commitment of care. I felt, “Okay, I need to privilege how Amy feels about her work rather than being ‘the critic’” and that was another shift.

How do I mentally prepare for criticism? Well, I think about the people that I worked with for a long time. I’ve shared material with former interlocutors. That they’re interested in what I’m trying to convey based on hanging out with them. Whether it’s perfect, it doesn’t really matter.

AS: That matters for me too. I feel like it’s our obligation to write, we have academic responsibility to share our findings. But I do want to capture some of the complexity of what they’re going through.

SF: I like that you’re already thinking about who you’re going to give the book to.

AS: I have one last question. I think we’ve gotten to know each other through this writing group because our personalities seep into our writing. How is your personality reflected in your writing style?

SF: How does my personality come out? Oh my goodness. That might be at the heart of the shift to the more creative mode of writing… finding a way to insert yourself into the story is necessary but difficult.

AS: Well, I was thinking in a much more literal sense, that you’re quite funny about having lots of words. I asked you once, “Why don’t you pick a word?” And you were, “That’s me, I can’t commit!”

SF: The ellipsis and then a question mark. And then a forward slash! Yes, that’s true. Maybe that’s why I’m turning to ethnographic poetry, because I can use those. Yeah, that’s true, that is my writing personality.

You’ve got me thinking about your writing and personality, and what comes out is how well you navigate very different social scenarios, that requires quite a bit of flexibility. Your open personality, and charm, comes out in the stories you tell. You make fieldwork sound fun. I want to just follow you around and be your research assistant!

AS: I appreciate that. I’ve been struggling in writing this book because of the class issues, in the midst of the United States and the serious class issues and economic differences between intended parents from abroad and North American surrogates. And being a first-generation PhD, and growing up working class, a background that I know we both share. I struggle in terms of how much do I put of my own story in there?

SF: We’re both writing about reproduction, and parenthood, motherhood, fatherhood, family making, loss, belonging, even trauma– we both don’t know yet where our own relationships with reproduction will find their way into the books.

AS: Thanks Sue. I love writing and talking about writing. I was saying to my friend on our walk this morning, “Maybe I like talking to you about writing more than writing” … 

Figure 2: A pandemic space for virtual teaching and book writing, for Amy Speier who lives in Fort Worth, Texas.

Figure 2: A pandemic space for virtual teaching and book writing, for Amy Speier who lives in Fort Worth, Texas.

Amy Speier is a medical anthropologist at the University of Texas at Arlington and a first-generation PhD. She is the author of Fertility Holidays: IVF Tourism and the Reproduction of Whiteness (2016, New York University Press), and is currently working on her second book project, which is about international intended parents traveling to the United States to create families made possible by assisted reproductive technologies and surrogates.

Sue Frohlick is a settler scholar and cultural anthropology and gender and women’s studies professor and co-director of the Collaborative and Experimental Ethnography Lab at the University of British Columbia, Syilx Nation Okanagan Territory, and previous Department Head of Community, Culture, and Global Studies. Sue is also the first PhD in her family. Her research in the field of social science and health and medicine has included community-based research on youth HIV prevention, racism, and settlement in Canada and cross-border reproduction in Costa Rica, the subject of her current book project. She is the author of Sexuality, Women, Tourism: Cross-Border Desires through Contemporary Travel (2013, Routledge).


About the series

Writing Life focuses on the craft of writing in the social studies of medicine. Amidst the current challenges to making texts, this series invites scholars in our field to take time to reflect, in conversation with each other, on how to navigate and nurture their craft.

Each post in Writing Life delves into the black boxes of writing life, many exploring the specificities of producing texts about the lives of those entangled in illness, care, pain, diagnosis, experiment, research, suffering, and recovery.  The spirit of the contributions is collaborative – an exploration through dialogue. In crafting the posts, authors also explore a research practice central to our fields – interviewing – and the work and art of transcribing and editing other people’s words.

We continue to openly invite further contributions to the series. Please contact series editors Anna Harris (a.harris@maastrichtuniversity.nl) or Denielle Elliott (dae@yorku.ca) to express interest.


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