Gail Crowther is an excellent Sylvia Plath scholar; today, she has a new book out: Sylvia Plath And The Haunted Reader. She took some time out to chat to me about Plath, her new book, and more.
Hello Gail, thank you for agreeing to this interview.
Hi, my pleasure.
Your new book, The Haunted Reader and Sylvia Plath, is out today; congratulations! Tell me: what was the idea behind it?
I suppose my interest in this began with the personal experience of feeling an unusual attachment to Plath. I love lots of writers, but my reading relationship with Plath was – and is – completely different to any other writer. I noticed that other people seemed to share this and so I thought it might be interesting to explore in a little more detail what might be going on here, why attachments to Plath seem a bit different, a little ‘stronger, and of course what role she plays in peoples’ lives.
I think there is, and see, a slight revision taking place with Plath’s legacy and this pleases me.
The Haunted Reader looks set to explore how “fandom can manifest itself”; could you explain this further?
Once I had established that certain readers did have quite a strong attachment to Plath, I figured this was, in many cases, some form of fandom. I use the expression ‘reader-fan’ in the book because it feels like there is something more than reading occurring, but also something more than fandom. I became fascinated to try and uncover what kind of things reader-fans ‘do’ and why. For example, I have visited places that Plath has written about or places where she has lived, I guess in a way to see them through her eyes, to try and enter into her creative processes that turned, say, a yew tree at night into a beautiful poem. It’s not the only way to understand a poem of course, but I quite enjoy seeing the original influence for the genesis of a poem and what she does with it after that. My book is divided into chapters which look at the different ways fandom manifests itself, beginning with the first encounter reader-fans have with Plath, through to exploring the idea of doubles, the importance of pilgrimage to Plath places, the impact of photographs, and finally the impact of Plath’s things/objects.
Applying this concept to Plath, what do you think about that and her legacy?
I think there is, and see, a slight revision taking place with Plath’s legacy and this pleases me. Both Plath and her readers have, I feel, received quite a rough time of it. For those of us who form meaningful attachments, the throwaway phrase The Cult of Plath is used, as if to dismiss and demean. For Plath herself, the fact that she is often inextricably read through her final act, her suicide, does a great disservice to her work. Her reputation and the manner of her death has been trivialized and joked about. If you put an image search into Google you see photographs of people going to fancy dress parties dressed as Plath with a cardboard oven on their head etc etc. I find this tragic in so many ways and feel that the focus has to be pulled back to her work and to her importance as a cultural figure.
Are you working on any other Plath projects?
Yes, I’ve just finished a book that I have been co-writing with Peter K. Steinberg called These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. In this we combine Plath scholarship with archival studies to explore what it feels like to work in an archive, how we might begin to theorize the archive, and we share some of our most unusual and exciting Plath finds, such as unseen photos, or little-know poems. This will be released next year. I’m also starting research for an essay on Plath and Religion for a collection which will be coming out in 2018.
I suppose my interest in this began with the personal experience of feeling an unusual attachment to Plath. I love lots of writers, but my reading relationship with Plath was – and is – completely different to any other writer.
Do you have any advice for writers and fellow ‘Plathians’ wishing to follow in your footsteps?
I think over the years I have discovered the importance of really solid research. This partly came about when I was studying for my PhD but subsequently working with Peter K. Steinberg who has taught me so much about the importance of really solid factual evidence. I already knew this, but I’m inclined to be easily swayed by a lovely theory or a poetic bit of writing and wander off in a distracted way discussing it, whereas Peter is great for pulling me back and actually getting me to be accurate. Our book we have just written together was great fun and a massive learning experience for me. I know I’m never going to get away with trying to slip the odd ‘circa’ expression into a sentence when I’m writing with Peter. So in that sense accurate research makes solid writing, I guess.
I already knew this, but I’m inclined to be easily swayed by a lovely theory or a poetic bit of writing and wander off in a distracted way discussing it, whereas Peter is great for pulling me back and actually getting me to be accurate.
Random: Which do you prefer-cats or dogs?
Well I have both, so I don’t really have a preference, though my dog, George, usually warms my feet while I’m writing and he’s good fun to play with on the beach. I would say cats are more fun to play with in the house, but mine, Alfie, isn’t because he’s vicious and slightly unhinged.