FOUR QUESTIONS for Susanna Donato — Okey-Panky

This post is reblogged from a post yesterday at Okey-Panky — my interview with the lovely writer and editor Alice Bolin.

Earlier this year, we published Susanna Donato’s essay “Fast Food.” Today she answers a few questions for editor-at-large Alice Bolin.

We get such an original and tantalizing vision of being a teenager in Denver in this era–life revolving around fast food joints, the sand dunes, Red Rocks. Can you give us any other choice details of this setting? Or stories that didn’t make the cut?

I wonder if the ‘80s and ‘90s were the last years of teenagers really being free. No cell phones, no social media, no surveillance cameras, parents who told us to go outside and not come back until dark. And cars—groups of kids could drive around, singing along with cassettes. This piece talks about Annette’s Belvedere and Shelley’s van, but there were Laurel’s Chevette, Heather’s Scout, and the cars I drove: my family’s first wood-paneled minivan that could hold seven girls, a big old 1976 Monte Carlo with its six-foot hood where I learned my mean parallel-parking skills, and the Honda Civic that replaced it, so cute and exotic to me at the time.

We cruised around downtown Denver every weekend. There was plenty of parking and nothing to do. We’d walk across the deserted viaducts—the double-decker streets that have since been demolished—or stand on the air vents below the skyscrapers and laugh our asses off when our clothes puffed up like the Michelin Man. Good, clean, stupid, smoky fun. Many places are just memories now—coffeehouses that have closed (and new ones that have cropped up). The Jack in the Box where I worked has been a bank for quite a while. Last summer, developers imploded the hospital buildings that employed the tattooed construction worker in “Fast Food.”

As far as stories that didn’t make the cut, the memoir I’m writing is in some ways a love letter to the way Denver used to be, and the way teenage years used to be, as well as how growing up is universal. Even more stories won’t make the cut for the book, but I hope I’ll capture something of that old Denver.

The baby bird imagery I think does so much to make this piece affecting, and it moves us through the piece–one of my favorite moments is the girl you know who is on drugs, whose wings are already ragged. Was that there from the beginning of the writing process? Or was it something you added later?

Thank you, and no, no, the bird imagery developed later. But the piece started with the idea of these girls being feral, sort of fighting and scrapping to find their way, so there was always a wildlife element to it. Then I had the idea of giving the piece more structure as a field guide. Young women at that age—seventeen, eighteen—are encroached on by men in a way that they never have been before. They’re leaving shelter and seeing how the world is—the ones fortunate enough to have had shelter, that is. I wanted to include that sense of the leering wolfishness of the male world, but I wanted the focus to be strongly on the girls’ experience.

I talked before about the parts of Denver that are gone, but Red Rocks is still around. The Great Sand Dunes are still here. Nature hasn’t gone anywhere. Nature is eternal, I suppose, and nothing is more natural for humans than growing up, fledging.

I love the theme in the piece of teenage girls clinging to each other for protection in a world that wants to devour them. Do you think female friendship is closest in adolescence? Can that closeness ever be regained?

I like your word “devour.” I think all friendship is closest in adolescence—I had very close female friends and very close male friends, too. Today we hear a lot about adolescent bullying, but teenagers also save each other’s lives. They are one another’s shelter, often our first experiences of love, certainly love outside the family. At some point we all start finding our parents irritating, which I think is a survival instinct, something to force us from the nest, and then we must turn to others. Closeness forms out of necessity, I think.

Later, we become jaded, and it’s never the same, is it? As an adult, I rely on my friends in a different way. As a young woman, trust had to be built up, and then it was fierce. Now I operate more often on instinct—this person will or won’t be a friend—and then build trust on top of that. Maybe we’re helping each other through early parenthood, or divorce, or unemployment, or cancer—serious things that somehow don’t feel as serious as youth did. I might have coffee with someone who reveals that she’s going through something difficult, and then we don’t talk for months. Now I know the value of friends, but I also know to value myself, or I try.

In my twenties, my friendship with the woman I’ve called Annette broke apart. It was terribly painful, for both of us, I think. Nothing hurt like that, except splitting up with my first serious boyfriend. Then she and I reconnected. Now, it’s different, we don’t see each other often, but we still can talk deeply, I think because we knew each other so well as girls. Now, we skip the small stuff. It just doesn’t matter.

Do you ever eat fast food? What’s your favorite chain restaurant?

Ha! For me, fast food is often about nostalgia as much as a specific food. I was a vegetarian for ten years, which isn’t too amenable to fast food, but when I was pregnant, I started craving meat—and sometimes, fast food. One of my go-to pregnancy foods was Popeye’s fried chicken, which I still like, a few times a year. Is Chipotle fast food? That’s probably my favorite chain. Chipotle started in Denver—in fact, the very first Chipotle restaurant was once a Dolly Madison ice cream shop near the University of Denver, and that Dolly Madison was the first place my parents allowed my sister and me to go buy a treat without an adult. I haven’t set foot in a Jack in the Box since the summer I worked there. Not quite intentionally. Maybe subconsciously intentionally.


I can’t locate video of the Depeche Mode concert I wrote about, but here’s a quick clip of a performance from the same World Violation tour, about three weeks after the Red Rocks show, in Detroit:

See the rest at Slicing Up Eyeballs.