Busting Outta Permafrost with C. Denby Swanson
I first met C. Denby Swanson in Minneapolis, where we were both in residence on a Jerome Fellowship at the Playwrights’ Center. Years later, here we are talking about her play The Norwegians, running now through March 23 at the Drilling Company in N.Y.C.
Janet Allard (Rail): Okay, so I have to ask (though I have my suspicions), where did this play come from? Why Norwegians?
C. Denby Swanson: My first week in Minneapolis, for a Jerome Fellowship in 2001, I met you, and Lisa D’Amour, and Carson Kreitzer, and Julie Myatt at D’Amico’s for their three dollar bottomless house red wine, and Julie actually said that she felt obligated to tell me two things that everybody would try to keep secret: 1) Minnesota winter really IS that bad; and 2) You gotta find a lover before the first freeze or else it’s too late.
Rail: Yeah, because people just disappear into their parkas and you just don’t really see anyone’s skin after maybe October (which you happen to mention beautifully in your play). So absolutely, yes, before the first freeze.
Swanson: Many people futilely throw themselves against the romantic permafrost over, and over, and over again. I certainly did. So anyway, I’ve been waiting for the right play in which to put that piece of wisdom; it was just so real and so true.
Rail: But the cold or the Midwestern hardship sort of brings people together, too. It’s like you’re surviving something huge together.
Swanson: Definitely—those wine and cheese writing group meetings with y’all were my anchor. It was cold until like June. I mean June. Jesus. When I arrived in Minneapolis in 2001 it was Memorial Day weekend, and I thought, “This is the coldest I have ever been in my life and I have lived in Central Europe.”
Rail: Yeah, I think there’s a point where every writer who moves to Minnesota for a fellowship (or maybe anyone who moves to Minnesota for anything ever) says to themselves, “Holy shit! What have I gotten myself into?”
Swanson: What was that point for you?
Rail: Driving to the airport, in a blizzard, with Carson at the wheel, and I’m not sure if I imagined this or if it’s true, but I believe she had just learned how to drive. And it was a blizzard. And the plane took off. On time.
Swanson: I think for me it was not only the cold. That same Memorial Day weekend, when someone asked me what brought me to Minneapolis and I said, “I-35,” they didn’t laugh. And I thought, “Oh my god, no one up here is going to get my jokes.”
Minnesota-nice really is nice though. I mean, when I moved into my apartment, a family friend who lived nearby put me in her station wagon, and drove me around the neighborhood, and stopped at the houses of people she knew—she’d just pull up in the alley, and they’d swing open the garage door and pile furniture, dishware, tables, and cooking utensils into the car. I mean, they didn’t know me from Eve, but within two hours my entire apartment was basically furnished. It was insane, so generous and welcoming.
Rail: Yeah, Minnesota is nice—and also Minnesota-nice, depending on the day, and there’s a difference.
Swanson: In Texas, we say things like, “Oh I just love her, I love her to death.” That’s Texas nice for you, and it’s said really sweetly, but it actually means we hate this person and want her removed from the planet.
Rail: Yeah, in North Carolina they say, “Bless your heart,” which I’m beginning to realize means, “You’re a damn idiot.” Did it somehow take leaving Minnesota to write about Minnesota?
Swanson: Our fellow Jerome Fellow, Yehuda Hyman, wrote this delicious 10-minute Minnesota play called “Swan Lake Calhoun,” which I still teach, it’s so delightful. Then a couple of years ago, when I was back home living in Austin, my friend Joe Salvatore invited me to do one of those 24 Hour Plays with him for a fundraiser for a theater company that he works with in New Jersey. So it’s 3 a.m., we have until 8 a.m. to write a 10-minute play, both of us are completely punchy, we’re e-mailing status updates to each other. I had nothing. I began just writing down snippets of dialogue without even any character names, and I figured whatever the situation was it needed to be tense, and immediate, and full of conflict, so I guess I thought, “Hey, gangsters are easy.” And then I thought, well, the twist is that they are super nice. And then they became Minnesota-Norwegian gangsters.
Rail: Which makes them scarier in a way. And at the same time more loveable.
Swanson: At 3 a.m., you need to laugh or things get really bad, really fast.
Rail: This play cracked me up. I never realized there were two “ass”es in “assassins” until one of the characters in your play pointed it out to me.
Swanson: And the borscht thing actually happened. While I was in Minneapolis I had what I referred to as a Sigmund-Freud-oscopy, and it turned out I had just been eating too many beets.
Rail: Yeah, I wondered if that actually happened, because it’s one of those things that’s just too vivid and weird to actually make up. And it seemed so personal in some kind of poetic way. Which brings me to something I find really compelling about this play: it does seem so personal and at the same time very theatrical and imagined—it’s a great blend of the two. Great blend of the two makes it sound like yogurt or a smoothie, but I do admire the way you’re able to “blend” personal experience with something invented. I mean, I guess I’m supposing you’ve never hired a hitman to kill an ex?
Swanson: I have never hired a hitman to kill an ex. Ahem.
Rail: The thing is, the idea of this “he” or “ex” is really universal. Most of us know an “ex” who we’ve wanted to kill and wished would call again all at the same time.
Swanson: It’s terrible to feel relieved that we’re all in company together. And also—being heartbroken in Minneapolis—do you know the Lucinda Williams song “Minneapolis”? A friend gave me this C.D. and I played it as I drove out of town when I moved away. And Lucinda does so great with heartbreak, she just drags out that word, “Minneapolis,” so that it could not be sadder and colder.
Rail: And the play explores the complexities of those emotions/desires. Do you often use something you know well (like how it is to spend a winter in Minnesota—or to go through a break-up before the big freeze), as a starting point for a play?
Swanson: I’ve started with family stories before. In 1997 I was in a workshop in Prague with Paula Vogel and wrote a “bake-off” play (or the beginning of one) about a young woman and her sister who has committed suicide, three old ladies who played bridge, and a man in his 40s who dies in a car accident. My older step-sister committed suicide about a month later. My M.F.A. advisor at University of Texas Austin, David Mark Cohen, died in a car accident a couple of months after that. And then I realized that the three old ladies were my grandmother and two great-aunts, all of whom were dead. The young woman that the play is about was, by default, me; she’s the only one who is alive but she has trouble articulating her own desires. Bam! You know, that hit close to home. The play scared me pretty bad. I physically couldn’t look at it again. And I avoided Über-personal stuff for a while, or maybe—you know, I think what I did was abstract anything personal to such an extreme that I felt safe. (Damn. I think I just figured that out right now. Hello, intimate discovery.) Which made the work inaccessible.
The effort of that level of abstraction was so onerous, so exertive, that I just spent hours and hours and months and months just layering theatricality and obfuscation on top of relatively simple stories, it was a real practice of suffering and, essentially, fear. And then I became a parent, which reframed how I spent my time during the day. I walked away from writing for a while because it just wasn’t useful, financially or emotionally. But parenting is so direct, the narrative is so practical, it was like calling bullshit on myself.
Rail: Parenting tends to do that, huh? You and I both have toddlers close to the same age and it really, as you say, “reframes” not only how you spend your time but what’s important. It’s like toddlers were sent to call bullshit on the world, or at least they throw down their little toddler gauntlets and say, “What’s important? Show me! Bring it!”
Swanson: Right! Yes! Not only what can you get done before the baby wakes up, but what do you WANT to do. I think of the scene in the movie Erin Brockovich when she yells at Masry that all the extra and unappreciated work she’s doing is time away from her kids. I would prefer to spend time with my kid above pretty much any other activity.
Rail: We’ve gone from Norwegians to parenting. Sort of mirrors your own trajectory.
Swanson: Unexpected and totally nice.
Rail: Have any actual Norwegians seen your play? Did they recognize themselves?
Swanson: It’s funny, a lot of actual Norwegians have come to see the show, and then they come back and see it again and bring their friends, their moms, other Norwegians. In the play, the character Tor makes these increasingly outrageous claims about Norwegians, that they, you know, wrote the Kama Sutra and then it was stolen from them, yadda yadda. And Hamilton Clancy, who runs the company and plays Tor, says that one night an actual Norwegian asked him, “How does she know all this stuff about us? Did she do research? Is she Norwegian?” And I was like, Y’all, I made that shit up. I’m Irish.
From The Norwegians:
Here in Minnesota, you gotta find a lover before the first freeze or else it’s just too late, you’re iced in for a very long time, all alone. They don’t tell you that when you move here but it’s true. You are iced in for all the short days, there are so many short days before the sun comes back and it begins to thaw. Short days and long nights. Long cold nights all alone, just the sound of the radiator in your apartment turning on, the knocking and the whispering of steam. Just leftover soup heated up mid-afternoon before the light fades. In fact, you make so much borscht that your poop turns red and you think it’s blood and you have to have a tube with a camera on it shoved up your ass. On camera. In February. And the doctor aims the tube at you and says, “Here we go!” and then you watch your looming buttcheeks docked like the international space station by a tiny camera on a tube, like the space shuttle, right there on T.V. It’s that kind of cold, Olive. It’s the cold of those bulky purple and yellow sweaters that you have to put on to take out the garbage, so that you’re shapeless, like a big purple and yellow potato. That’s you: A big plate of starch. You’re just purple and yellow and shapeless and starchy, and you’ve just had a camera up your ass. On T.V. Unless of course you find a lover, and hold on to him, and you make your own steam, and knocking, and whispering, and you feed each other food from your hands, not soup but solid food, and you draw lines with ice cubes down each other’s body, no one’s cold then. No one’s cold. No one’s alone. So did you do that, Olive? Did you find someone before it froze? No. Oh, you tried, now, didn’t you. But you failed. You didn’t get a lover. No. No, you didn’t. Because he left you. He froze you out. He left you to die.
JANET ALLARD is a playwright and bookwriter/lyricist who, thanks to the Playwrights Center and the Jerome Foundation, has spent many cold winters in Minneapolis with some of the greatest playwrights and friends ever. She is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama.