• Melanie Bishop
  • A Q&A with Kelly Sundberg, Author of “It Will Look Like a Sunset”
A Q&A with Kelly Sundberg, Author of “It Will Look Like a Sunset”
Written by
Melanie Bishop
August 2014
Written by
Melanie Bishop
August 2014

On the day I was finalizing my review of Kelly Sundberg's essay, "It Will Look Like a Sunset," I searched for her on LinkedIn and Facebook, found her both places, and sent her private messages. I identified myself as a fan, told her I was reviewing her essay, and asked if she'd be willing to answer a few questions. She was wonderfully gracious, taking time to answer my questions that same day, from Idaho, at her summer job in  the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. Our email conversation follows.

Bishop: You say that the publication of "It Will Look Like a Sunset" led to over 20,000 views of your blog. My guess is by now that number is much higher. The essay has obvious literary value, but also has societal and cultural relevance as an essay that pioneers the outing of abusers. “It Will Look Like a Sunset” brings domestic violence out of its closet. How would you describe this phase of your career, from when the essay first appeared in Guernica to the immediate reception of it, to the traffic that led to your blog, to the weeks and months following, up to right now. Is the hype still happening? Where has it led? Update me on you and your writing since this essay launched a seismic shift for you as a writer.

Sundberg: I had never written anything that had such a large readership. In response to this essay, I've received hundreds of letters and emails from women who have survived to see the other side of domestic violence, so it has been validating and rewarding. I see all of these beautiful, strong, and successful women who I never would have suspected had survived abuse, and it tells me that I'm not alone in my experience. Abuse is so isolating. I looked for stories like mine, and I wasn't finding them, so I made myself completely naked on the pages of that essay. In order to do that, I had to remove an idea of audience from my mind while I was writing, so now, knowing that the essay has had such a large audience has created a kind of disconnect. I've become more aware of my writer persona. I am, of course, the woman who wrote that essay, but I'm also a silly person who likes to laugh a lot. No essay could fully encapsulate the whole experience of who I am, so when I'm talking to someone who hasn't read my writing, I'm often relieved just to be able to relax and be "normal." I know that many people don't think of abuse survivors as normal, so with my essay, I'm hoping to show that we are. 

I had never sent an essay to Guernica, I didn't think my work was political enough. This essay was different. The initial response was overwhelming, and it became even more so because Cheryl Strayed and NPR mentioned the essay, so the hype has continued. I'm fortunate that, in the summer, I work a non-writing related job. The folks I encounter know nothing about me or my writing, and it's good for keeping me grounded. It's very easy to get swept up into the hype of an essay that gets a lot of attention. It can become kind of euphoric and crushing in a way, but I’m still working hard to recover from the effects of abuse. I don't want to live on any more roller coasters, and that includes writing-related roller coasters.

Bishop: You mention in your interview on Brevity that your next book is about surviving abuse. Is this, like Demolition, a collection of essays, or is it a memoir? Do you have an agent? A potential publisher? Time off to actually write the thing?

Sundberg: The book I'm working on is another book of linked essays. In addition to "It Will Look Like a Sunset," I've also published an essay, "The Sharp Point in the Middle," at Pank that looks at the abuse from a different angle, and I have an essay coming out shortly about dealing with the grief of divorce. This recent writing has been evolving naturally into a collection, and I think it will be a strong book. I don't have an agent yet, but an editor at a major publisher has expressed interest, so I remain hopeful. 

Writing time is a luxury I don’t currently have. I'm getting my PhD, I work during the summers, and I raise my child by myself. I've been looking at some grants that offer funding to writers who have children. I'd love to be funded to dedicate next summer fully to my writing, but if that doesn't happen, I'll keep fitting it in when I can. These are the realities of being a single parent and a writer—it’s challenging but I can do it. I feel incredibly empowered now, as opposed to a few years ago, when my ex had me convinced that I could do nothing on my own. He even drove me to work in the morning and picked me up in the evenings. Now, when I look at what I've accomplished, I feel so capable. I know that I can raise my child, get my PhD, and write a book, and do all of those things well.

Bishop: In your July 14th post on your blog, Apology Not Acceptedyou say that one reason you've not been blogging so much is you are happy. You say that when you started the blog, you were "so angry." Clearly that anger was not only warranted and healthy, it was productive for you as a writer, urging you to write about your abuse, your dissolved marriage, single parenthood, and that letter of apology you received, court-mandated and ridiculously inadequate, in which your ex acted like his arrest was the hardest thing on everyone involved. Given all that, and given that you've made such admirable progress, not just as person, woman, survivor, but as a writer and articulator of the human experience, how do you move from being the person/writer who wrote this career-changing essay to being the person/writer you are becoming? How does the label "abuse survivor" help or hinder you as you take the next steps?

Sundberg: This is such an interesting question because, in response to that post, a friend wrote me and told me she was concerned that I was letting my past define me. She knew I had so many other stories to tell. Her message upset me a bit because I think she was buying into an all-too-familiar narrative of healing, which is that, once we're healed, we no longer feel the need to talk about what happened. Because I’m healing, I'm able to write about it. Sometimes I want to tell people, "Don't worry about me because I'm telling my story. Worry about all of the women who aren't telling their story." I don’t, however, want my only story to be that I was abused—the narrative that defines me, and I don't think it needs to be. I think that writing about my suffering has made me a better person and a more empathetic listener. Abuse isn't the only type of suffering. We have other losses as well. Hopefully, anyone who has suffered can find something meaningful in my writing.

A longer version of this interview first appeared on Essay Daily, August 14th.  http://essaydaily.blogspot.com/2014/08/melanie-bishop-q-with-kelly-sundberg.html

Melanie Bishop’s review of Sundberg’s “It Will Look Like a Sunset,” on Essay Daily August 13th.  http://essaydaily.blogspot.com/2014/08/melanie-bishop-on-it-will-look-like.html

Sundberg’s Blog: http://letterofapology.blogspot.com/

More on Bishop at: www.melaniebishopwriter.wordpress.com

Bishop's young adult novel, My So-Called Ruined Life, was released by Torrey House Press in January.

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