Susan Harlan, ’97, divulges story behind book on baggage

Susan Harlan, ’97, has been an author for six years. Her newest book, “Luggage,” is available to buy on Amazon.

Q: Was writing this book hard to do? If so, what about it was hard?

A: It was actually really fun. I enjoyed writing it a lot more than my academic book, (“Memories of War in Early Modern England”), but that took a decade. This took one year, so they were different kinds of projects.

I wrote some of “Luggage” on the road, so I was thinking about travel and about the things I bring with me when I go on road trips and why. The hard part was figuring out what to include and what, sadly, to leave out because there was so much to write about.

I have a Word document that is filled with books, movies and ideas about luggage that just wouldn’t fit. I wanted the book to feel kind of packed, but I was still limited by length.

I wrote a coda on (the) trunk (of) Blanche DuBois (a fictional character in Tennessee Williams’ 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning play “A Streetcar Named Desire”), but we decided to cut it, and it ran as an essay in “The Paris Review Daily.”

Q: Why did you want to write about the book in the first place?

A: I write a lot about objects, and I write a lot about travel, so when I first came across the series “Object Lessons” by various different authors, a few years ago, I knew that I would propose a book about luggage. To be fair, I also thought about “Souvenir” as I collect souvenirs, but now there is a book in the series on souvenirs by Rolf Potts.

I also have a collection of vintage luggage, so that was an inspiration. I wanted to work with this series because the books are short – sort of like long essays – and I liked the idea of coming at the idea of luggage from several angles and getting to play around with it for a while.

And I knew that I would be able to bring in figures like Roland Barthes (a 20th-century French author) in a non-academic way, and that was appealing.

Q: Were you inspired by anything or anybody in writing this book?

A: My own travels inspired me. I take a lot of drives through the South with my dog Millie, and we drove across the country a few years ago. When you pack your car as often as I do, you really start to think about luggage, about what we bring with us, when we leave home and why.

And I was also inspired by writers whose work on objects I admire: Susan Stewart, Pablo Neruda, Georges Perec and Francis Ponge. Those are all people who write about everyday things and why they matter in our lives.

That is what luggage is to me; it’s the sort of thing that we think we don’t think about, but we actually think about it a lot. When I told people I was writing the book, everyone had a story – or more than one.

Q: Did you enjoy writing the book?

A: Yes, so much so that it gave me another idea. Now that I have written a book about luggage and travel, I’m working on a book about my house, about being at home. It’s sort of a biography of the space and an object study on the things I collect.

I’m going full domestic. My house was built in 1920, so I’m also learning about its history.

The cover of Susan Harlan’s new novel, “Luggage.”

Q: Are you happy that this book is part of a series, or would you have preferred it not in the series?

A: It was great to be in a series because there is a model but also a lot of flexibility. The “Object Lessons” books are all different – some are more or less autobiographical, but they share an investment in everyday things and in a kind of writing that bridges the gap between academic scholarship and nonfiction.

Q: How did you learn about this book series?

A: A friend told me about it, and then I read a bunch of the essays on The Atlantic and bought some books such as “Hotel, Bookshelf, Waste, Glass” and started reading them to see what kinds of approaches the authors were taking to their subject matter.

Q: Did you learn anything while writing this book?

A: Oh, yes. I learned a lot about design history and about the history of travel and tourism – far more than I could include.

It’s funny. While I did a lot of directed research, I also just ended up putting things in the book that I was reading at the time. I was reading Jane Austen’s letters, so they ended up in there. And I was reading a lot of poetry and happened to come across poems about luggage, so I put them in. I was reading Ovid’s exile poems, so he is in there.

Q: If you could, would you write another book in this series?

A: You only write one book for the series, but I’d love to write another object-oriented book. To some extent, that’s what I’m doing in working on this book about my house.

But I also want to write a book about the human skull – a trans-historical study from medieval relic to the present, with travelogue chapters on the Catacombs in Paris, the Gorey House and the Day of the Dead. I write a lot about death culture academically, so it would be a way to draw on that interest for a wider audience.

Q: What was your favorite part about writing this book?

A: I really enjoyed writing the interludes about my road trip to Atlanta. That was my editor’s idea: to weave a journey through the book. It was a great idea, and I happened to be going to an academic conference that spring, so that became my trip.

I wanted the book to have a lot of myself in it, and the interludes became a way of including something that is really me: just driving with my dog.

I also loved the trip to the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Alabama. It was such a melancholy place. Just the sort of place I love.

—By Arjin Claire

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