Susanna Moore, THE LOST WIFE: A Novel

Susanna Moore, THE LOST WIFE: A Novel

Author Susanna Moore joins Zibby to discuss The Lost Wife, a stirring and immersive historical novel about a white woman who sympathizes with her Native American captors after they abduct her and her two children during the Sioux Uprising of 1862, and is thus vilified and rejected by the white settlers. Susanna talks about her fascinating research on the Sioux and the lives of women during that period. Then, she shares her life story, from Hawaii to New York and from working at Bergdorf’s to teaching at Princeton without a college degree.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Susanna. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Lost Wife: A Novel.

Susanna Moore: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.

Zibby: Thank you. Would you mind telling listeners what The Lost Wife is about?

Susanna: It is the story of a white woman who is abducted during the Sioux Uprising of 1862 with her two children in Minnesota Territory. Because she is sympathetic to Native Americans and has many friends within the clan, she is then rejected and vilified by her neighbors and even her husband once she is freed.

Zibby: Wow. I feel like throughout the novel, there is so much violence against women scattered throughout, whether it’s the main character getting hurt in the beginning, her mother having her bedsheets on fire after a man threw a lamp at her, which, of course, then were candles, to the women who seemed to have lost their minds in the camp. You had a line that was really beautiful. Let me see if I can find it. Probably not because I can never find anything. You said, “Some of the women do not say a word. Others have lost their minds and can no longer tell the difference between what is real and what they imagine.” Tell me a little bit about all of the violence against women, women’s roles in society, and how you decided to delve into all of this. It’s sort of a big question. You can just talk for twenty minutes. That’s fine.

Susanna: I want to hear you too. It’s a theme in all of my books. It’s less so in the early books, which are about Hawaii and my childhood growing up and very autobiographical. Although, it is in those books as well. Then of course, In the Cut is all about violence. What had happened and what stirred me to write In the Cut was that I was teaching in prison as a volunteer and also working in a shelter for women and children in New York as a volunteer. Not only did I see it firsthand, but I began to read about it and to look at the statistics. I was shocked at the level and the amount of violence that is directed toward women, particularly by men they know. That interested me and worried me. Then the other books, I don’t think there’s a lot of violence in the Indian book or the German book, but certainly in this one. Although, it’s not just directed toward women. Men suffer a great deal in it too, especially at the end of the book when thirty-two Native Americans are hanged, many of them who were innocent.

Zibby: Where did the fascination with the Sioux community come from?

Susanna: During the pandemic — I read an awful lot anyway, maybe five or six hours a day. During the pandemic, that was increased. I found myself reading captivity narratives, most of them written by women.

Zibby: I wonder why.

Susanna: between my own captivity, but one I’m hesitant to make because my own captivity was benign. Most of them written by women, many in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, mostly in the Northeast. Many of them died. Many of them were ransomed. Some chose to stay with their captors, had children, married, lived happily. When I came across Sarah Wakefield, she was a little different than the others. First of all, it was late. It was nineteenth century, 1862. It was the West, which was unusual. I also had read an article in the newspaper about students at the Brearley School here in New York objecting to one of the narratives, one by Mary Rowlandson about her abduction in 1675, because they felt it was, as they put it, a bit whiny. This is a woman who’s been shot, her child is shot through the bowels, dies in her arms, is eventually ransomed, and then wrote about it. To my surprise and anger, Brearley removed this book, Mary Rowlandson’s book, from the syllabus. That got my attention, especially as I was full of curiosity, admiration, sympathy for these women. In no instance would I think of them as being whiny. What they went through was extraordinary. Sarah, in my book, does not suffer like that and does ally herself with the Native Americans but does not stay with them.

Zibby: How did you know that this was removed from the syllabus at Brearley?

Susanna: It was in this article.

Zibby: Oh, okay. I got it. I actually went to Brearley until high school.

Susanna: It’s surprising, isn’t it?

Zibby: Yes, it is surprising.

Susanna: They were more sophisticated and more tolerant than that.

Zibby: Yes. They’ve gone through a lot of different leadership changes. I don’t know when this fell or whatever. Who knows? Whatever. Interesting. Do you find it depressing to sort of sit in all of these very difficult situations and write them? Is it somehow freeing to you, or cathartic? There’s a lot of difficult material. Not that you’re the only author writing about difficult material, of course. For you personally, how does it feel to read five or six hours a day and then turn to writing and delve into very disturbing topics for the rest of us?

Susanna: I think a lot of it is, as I said a little while ago, spurred by anger and a wish to explore and to explain and to describe what it was like for women, what it is like. Always when I’m writing, which is always, too, a bit of a nightmare for me — it’s not easy. I dread it. I spend an hour or two walking around each morning before I’m even able to sit down and begin. I write in longhand. Nora once said that she didn’t understand why people would come up to her and casually say, “I wish I could write a book. It’s just such a great life. I envy you.” She said that her hair fell out. She vomited every day. She couldn’t eat. She didn’t know what people were imagining. I don’t vomit every day. It hasn’t come to that, I’m pleased to say. At a certain point, too, in writing a book — it doesn’t happen at first, especially because I have no idea what I’m doing. I don’t always know what the ending is. I don’t have a title. I really just have a character and a circumstance, a setting. At a certain point, the book takes over. It has a life of its own. It moves you along. It captures you rather than being captured by you. That is always helpful. I’m always, when I’m writing, thinking, what was really happening? What was it really like? What did it feel like to be on a packet on the Erie Canal, a woman with no money, alone, not quite sure what would happen when you got to your destination, afraid, running away? What was that like? What would it have been like in 1855? There was a lot of research, which, of course, is my favorite part.

Zibby: How do you like to do your research? Do you go to libraries? Are you online digging around on Google? What’s your favorite way?

Susanna: Lots and lots of books. I don’t know what I did before post-its. I’m sure I ruined a lot of books with underlinings and exclamation points. Online, there was a lot written in essays, especially feminist essays, about women in the West, about Sarah Wakefield, who was a real person. She had her own narrative, as I’ve said. No one knew where she came from other than the fact that she lived in Rhode Island. No one really even knew her last name. How did she get to Minnesota? The internet, which I often abhor, proved to be extremely useful. I had to change my attitude towards it. I found out who she was and that she was married and had a child, which I use in the book. She’s a bigamist, which was not uncommon in the West. In that sense, the internet was very helpful. Also, I had often thought about that, how in countries that still had wide expanses of land and frontiers — in Australia, it was similar. There was no bookkeeping. If there were churches or town halls, nothing really was written down. Nothing was checked. There was a great deal of bigamy, a great deal of starting new and, if it wasn’t bigamist, having a completely new identity and history, a past, inventing your own past.

Zibby: Even in the book when she gets together with her Yale Medicine-educated husband, she’s like, he doesn’t know anything about me. You didn’t write it like that. You wrote it beautifully and all the rest. She’s like, how could he marry me? He doesn’t know my past. He doesn’t know any of my secrets. He doesn’t know my story. Yet here we go off into the moonlight or whatever. It’s so interesting to have all those secrets. It’s almost like the premise of a modern-day thriller where somebody comes and you don’t know the backstory. What happens in the new relationship? Yet of course, it’s derived from truth.

Susanna: Of course, it’s very different now. We are accustomed now in many ways to knowing too much. She knows very little about him as well. The other thing the book is about which interested me, kept me going, was that it is about a woman who tells lies, who lies and is believed, is trusted, and has a life, gets away with it, so to speak. When she finally does tell the truth at the end, no one believes her. That too got my attention.

Zibby: I have to say, I did not go back and read your autobiographical novels from before. What is your through line? What is the story I should know about you from your own life?

Susanna: I grew up in Hawaii, where my family is from. I left home very young, too young. I was seventeen. Lived with my grandmother in Philadelphia. Went to work here in New York at Bergdorfs when it was quite different from what it is now. I was seen by a photographer, a designer. I began to model. I wasn’t very good at that. I was always a little bit shy, a little bit embarrassed, not because I thought I was too fine, but because I knew I wasn’t at ease. It showed. Ended up in California for ten years, married. Lived in London for a while. Came to New York. Have lived in New York for forty years. I teach at Princeton, a seminar each fall. My students are fascinated that I did not go to college. They find that almost unbelievable because so much emphasis has been placed on their own collegiate life and their awareness of what it means to be at Princeton. What else? I have a child, a daughter who’s grown up. I’ve been married quite a few times. I live alone now very happily.

Zibby: When did your hair turn white? Is that a natural streak in your hair?

Susanna: It was white very young, in my twenties. Not white, but a lot of gray. I dyed it for years and years and also, for a while, fell under the delusion that a permanent looked great. You look at pictures. I think, oh, god. It was the nineties. The streak is not real, no.

Zibby: Interesting. My best friend’s stepmom has the opposite. She has all black with this one white streak in the exact same place. I feel like the two of you should get next to each other.

Susanna: Susan Sontag was the first person I saw with that and thought how striking it was. It was a way not to look too old. It had a certain vanity. It has a certain vanity in it.

Zibby: It’s beautiful. It’s very striking. I’m fascinated now by everyone’s hair decisions as mine is starting to go gray. I’m always talking to women. How did you decide to do that? Should I let my hair go gray or not? Selfishly.

Susanna: It’s quite fashionable now.

Zibby: Yours looks beautiful. You just don’t know. You don’t know if it’s going to look like yours or it’s going to look terrible. Anyway, these are obviously not the important —

Susanna: — I think you have a little while to go.

Zibby: A little while. What are you working on now?

Susanna: I’ve been reading a lot about the Civil War. It alarms me because I do not want to write — I’m very careful not to write from the point of view of a character whose inner life I can’t imagine. That’s why, in this book, I don’t write too much about the Native Americans because I wouldn’t presume to know what that experience would be. I know people do write about it. There’s a book about a woman in India. There’s another book about a woman in Berlin before the war. I’ve always chosen to write from the point of view of an outsider. I’m pausing because it just occurred to me maybe I feel like an outsider. As a woman, I imagine I do. I’m reading a lot about the Civil War. I don’t know quite why I’m so obsessed by it. John Mitchum, the historian, recently wrote that demographers now believe that 750,000 people were killed in the Civil War, which means that many people across the country were willing to accept that level of bloodshed in order to retain the power of enslaving other human beings. That made me think about it too. To write from the point of view of a Southerner, and certainly absolutely not to write from the point of view of an African American — I don’t quite know what I’m doing. I’m up to something.

Zibby: I have no doubt. I recently interviewed Drew Gilpin Faust, the former head of Harvard. She said she had written a biography about a slave owner because she just couldn’t understand the psychology and really wanted to delve into all the research and understand. Now she’s considering writing a biography of someone who helped, the opposite side of that coin in the same exact time period. I felt like those two biographies would be so interesting, different lenses through which to view.

Susanna: So interesting. All of the diaries of that period — there’s a famous one by a woman called Mary Chesnut. Nonfiction would be altogether different. Fiction, as I said, it’s been done, and done well, even something like Gone with the Wind, which now I find a bit unreadable. It’s so romantic and, in many ways, inaccurate. Still, it’s Gone with the Wind.

Zibby: I saw that they’re putting a new disclaimer page in the beginning of the book in the next reprints. Did you see that?

Susanna: No, I didn’t. In Gone with the Wind?

Zibby: Yes, in Gone with the Wind.

Susanna: Because of how African Americans are treated? Yes, I can understand that.

Zibby: Gone with the Wind was one of the first books — I had a thing when I was a young girl. I loved to read all the time, and so I wanted to read the longest books I could get my hands on. That was one in the repertoire. The longer, the better. You said you read so much, obviously. What percent do you think is contemporary fiction versus ?

Susanna: Not very much. I’m always vowing to rectify that and do rectify it. Mostly, it’s reading books that I’ve read before. I’m reading again at the moment, I’m reading all of Samuel Pepys’ diaries starting in 1600. Things like that. For me, it’s — what would be the word? It cools my brain to read Pepys in 1662. It’s soothing. I don’t come away distressed or anxious, probably because it’s familiar. It’s probably the third time I’ve read it. I read mostly things I’ve read before, Chekhov. Everything I’ve read before, I’m now reading four and five and six times.

Zibby: Wow. Do you feel like you’re on the outside of anything now? You were talking about maybe you write to work through your feelings of being an outsider yourself. Are there circumstances in which you find yourself an outsider right now?

Susanna: No. If I’m an outsider now in certain ways, it’s probably often by choice. I do think it has to do with being a woman. I do remember that moment in childhood — I was on my bicycle, my beloved blue Schwinn, and realizing that being a girl was not necessarily to my advantage. As a girl, I was an outsider in this world of boys. I had, before then, been accepted. That was a bit of a shock and confusing, especially growing up in Hawaii where there were not organized sports in the sense of soccer on Saturday. It was quite wild and quite free. Children roamed around together in the rainforest or in the ocean. When that divide became obvious to me and I had to accept that I was, in some sense, an outsider, I think that’s where it began.

Zibby: You’re definitely inside the literary establishment, for what that’s worth.

Susanna: I don’t think of myself that way, but it would be nice if it’s true. One of the reasons I wrote In the Cut was that after the first three books, which were about growing up in Hawaii and coming to New York, I realized that I was seen as, was called a woman’s writer, which meant that I wrote lyrically about flowers and children, motherhood. I minded that. I determined that I would write a book like In the Cut, something that was traditionally a genre inhabited by men mostly, noire, detective story, dark. When I began it, the female character was herself a detective. I realized, no, that doesn’t work. It’s not doing what I want it to do. It was very much a book written by an outsider refusing to be so. That make sense?

Zibby: Yeah, I followed. I followed you. What are your plans for today after this podcast? We have a beautiful day in New York.

Susanna: It’s so beautiful, isn’t it?

Zibby: It’s so beautiful.

Susanna: I live in the West Village by the river, so I will go for a long walk and then, of course, read, go back to my Pepys, and read again, read again. I’ve come to like my isolation rather too much after the years of the pandemic. I’m trying to overcome that desire for isolation. Especially since summer is here and spring is here, it’s probably not a good thing. I’m working on that, going out more.

Zibby: I’m very comfortable at home.

Susanna: I really came to love my loneliness. It’s okay to still love it, but I need to get out more.

Zibby: Today is a nice day for it, so there you go. Susanna, it was really lovely chatting with you. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself. Congratulations on your novel.

Susanna: Thank you very much. Thanks.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Susanna Moore, THE LOST WIFE: A Novel

THE LOST WIFE: A Novel by Susanna Moore

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