An Interview with Sarah Berbank Green
by Ann Fisher, Mud Season Review Fiction Co-Editor
Sarah, our readers really appreciated both your writing style and your ability to bring them directly into this story as a lived experience. Tell us a bit about how “Empty Vessel” came into being.
It was a story very long in the making. I started it about six or seven years ago, but I am a slow writer and even slower editor, so it has taken awhile to bring it to fruition. I can trace the inspiration for the story back to quite a few sources: a podcast I listened to about a woman who makes urns for a living, which I thought was a strange and sort of beautiful thing to do; a driving trip across Oklahoma; a ceramics class I took while living in Berlin; my experiences with painting and life drawing; and, my memories of 1990s cafe culture in the southern town where I grew up. I certainly did not set out to write a story that smashed together all of these things, but as I crafted the character of Caroline, that was what came out.
The story itself is a vessel, holding so much grief and loss, yet is filled with “…the urge to grow, grow, grow. And live, live, live.” Did you set out to layer hope inside of grief, or did the story build as you created it?
To be honest, I’m not sure I’m very much in control of what I write. When I started the story, I didn’t know where it was going. I was only intrigued by the idea of making urns, creating something so integral to the fabric of human experience and yet also disturbing, maybe even frightening to people who see death as a sort of taboo. It seemed a wonderful gift, a tender act of service on the part of the potter, who makes these works of art so that the rest of us don’t have to confront our own fears about death.
Your imagery is beautiful, bringing us into the heart of the story. In “The Empty Vessel”, we see the main character collecting bits of life and death from the natural world.
“Over time, hornet’s nest became a repository for all of my dead and broken things.”
Are you a collector? If so, is there a part of collecting bits of the natural world that feeds and sustains you as well?
Yes, yes, most emphatically yes! This question actually made me laugh aloud. I’m such a collector. My mom tells stories of how she used to come home from the playground with pockets full of rocks that I would slip in while she wasn’t paying attention. As an adult, I have a serious flea market addiction and collect magic lantern slides, mid-century teacups, tintypes and ambrotypes, pens and pen paraphernalia, old porcelain from China and Japan, picture frames (so many picture frames!), clay busts, old art books — anything, really. Now that I live in Brittany, France, I’m obsessed with the earthenware pottery and confit jars here, as well as the tiny figurines found in French galettes at Epiphany. I’m also getting into marbles. I feel such a tenderness towards all of these lost fragments of our material culture —- I feel it’s my responsibility to save them and give them a home, to be a kind steward of the past. Even my DNA test said I had a high likelihood of being a hoarder!
In the story, the main character models for her “sometimes” boyfriend, in a complicated scene depicting art and psychology. You are a painter who creates beautiful visual art as well. Tell us how your visual art background lent itself to the scene in the story where “In the stifling, dizzying heat, I felt my mind dissipate, my thoughts recede, until I was only a body, a body to be looked at and put on canvas.” How does the act of an artist being painted by someone else lend itself to the idea of being seen or not seen?
I have only sat for a painting once and it was very hot, which provided some of the inspiration for the scene — although the painter who painted me was a good friend, and the final product was lovely, so the comparison ends there. It’s interesting because I think one of the gifts portraiture gives us is this sense of being seen and valued. You can see how models thrill at the sight of their portrait even when it isn’t the most successful drawing. At the same time, in order to represent someone faithfully, you have to lose awareness of them as a person and instead focus on the abstract forms and shadows of their body. There is something dehumanizing about this process, which I thought created an interesting dynamic between the main character and this guy who didn’t really value her as she might have wished.
I found it fascinating that the man who couldn’t paint, or “see” the main character evolved to have a career where he worked with young people as a counselor and was “…the first person who ever really saw them as people”. Tell us a bit about how this character evolved.
Honestly, I think a lot of that character progression was inspired by Facebook. We all have these memories of people as they were when we first knew them, maybe as teenagers or college classmates. When we see them on social media now, as adults, it can be jarring to see how much they’ve changed. The moody, grungy boy you might have had a crush on is now a parent or a car salesman or somebody’s boss. We are all now so different than the people others remember us to be, and they, too, have changed in ways it is sometimes difficult for us to reconcile with or understand. I liked the idea of the main character having to come to terms with the fact that this figure in her life who had such a negative effect on her was at the time only a nineteen-year-old boy, that he grew up and changed and left the past behind him. This realization was what allowed her to put the past behind her, as well, to forgive him and to make his urn.
You have lived a unique lifestyle, making your homes in a van, and on the water. What impact, if any, does that choice have on your art? Are there any parallels to the main character in “The Empty Vessel”?
I have been reading a book on creativity called Inspired, by Matt Richter, and the author writes that varied life experiences are crucial for creative production. In that way, I think living in strange places and moving around a great deal has had a huge influence on my work, but I find it much easier to write and make art now that I live in a quiet village in the middle of nowhere. Suddenly, all that excess stimulation has stilled, and I can finally hear myself think.
I suppose there was a time when I did sometimes have a sort of quiet envy of people who have had more traditional lives — a real job, a mortgage, a family — because I really do think that these things weren’t an option for me. I’m by nature too roving and, honestly, neurotic to have stayed in my hometown or achieved the sort of professional success that was expected of me. In this story, I was drawn to the idea of playing with this envy a bit, seeing if there wasn’t as much regret and unsettledness in a traditional life as an unconventional one, if a sense of dissatisfaction or longing isn’t something we all feel at one time or another. This is part of what is going on in the conversations between the main character and her ex-boyfriend’s wife.
You mentioned that this story has a truer-than life connection. Is that something you can share with our readers?
Yes, definitely. It is a personal subject, but one that I think we don’t talk openly about enough. About the time I started to write this story, I developed symptoms of what would six years later be diagnosed as uterine fibroids. This is an extremely common condition (60% of women suffer from them at some point in their lives), but the three doctors I spoke to about my symptoms weren’t able to identify the cause, and by the time I received a diagnosis, having a hysterectomy was pretty much the only reasonable treatment option.
This meant I wouldn’t be able to have children, which I found devastating at first — I had been up in the air about deciding whether or not to have children for a few years, and once the possibility was taken away from me, it seemed like an impossible loss to bear. I realized that in writing “The Empty Vessel,” I had unwittingly provided myself with a sort of solace, pointing towards another way of seeing and valuing one’s role in life. In my more magical-thinking moments, I wonder if my subconscious wasn’t alerting me to changes in my body and helping me reconcile myself to them.
I have to say that, standing on the other side of my hysterectomy, I actually feel incredible. The story expresses so much grief and sadness, but that hasn’t been my experience at all. I feel so creative, energetic, and alive now. I have also fully come to terms with not having children and am very happy. There is an exquisite deliciousness in waking up to a quiet house, writing every morning, and going to bed when I want to. I love having the freedom to spend time with my husband, travel, and dote on my animals. Because I don’t have children, I have space for all of those things. I was raised to believe there was something selfish about not having children — now I feel that it is because I don’t have children that I can truly give of myself in the most authentic and powerful way I am able.
What creative are projects are you working on now, visual and/or writing or other?
Due to my hysterectomy, I have been thinking a lot about joy lately. I am making a series of paintings about joy and allowing ourselves to feel strong sensations with fullness and abandon. I am also working on a novel about a biographer researching the life of an Edwardian poet in the Dordogne region of France. It is primarily a meditation on messy female friendships and the intense, often misunderstood power they have over our lives. I love this book, but it requires a lot of research, so I’m distracting myself by experimenting with flash fiction and poetry. These two genres are helping me learn a great deal about editing, which, as the length of my answers to these interview questions demonstrates, is a skill I would do well to develop.