The Five Questions: Ann Sussman



“The book provided a means to resolve ‘childhood trauma’ and I now understand my deeper motivations for writing it.”

Ann Sussman is the first nonfiction guest at The Five Questions, and will be my co-panelist at a Harvard Book Store reading, Monday, June 22 at 7pm titled, The Power of Place. She will be reading from her recently published book, Cognitive Architecture, a exploration of the surprising links between our internal neurology and our external built environment. I hope our Greater Boston friends will join us June 22!

  1. What’s the surprising inspiration behind the book you’ve published?

I didn’t realize, until much after the fact, that it was my early childhood experience and specifically my relationship with my mother that lead me – no, drove me – to write Cognitive Architecture. Perhaps, one can take everything back to pre-school days, but in my case, my mother was not always available in ways I most needed her to be; though physically present, severe, untreated, depression took her away from me much of the time. In need of attachment, I looked for and found it elsewhere, specifically, in buildings. They seemed so constant, reliable, and ready to ‘see’ me. I had no idea until I started researching Cognitive Architecture, many decades later, that people do indeed ‘see’ faces subconsciously in building facades, and are oriented by and emotionally attach to them, whether actively aware of it or not. In a sense, the book provided a means to resolve ‘childhood trauma’ and I now understand my deeper motivations for writing it. Anne Morrow Lindbergh writes, “the only true way to reach the universal, (is) through the knot-hole of the personal.” This is true, I also see, in ways I never could have imagined.

  1. If you could rescue one obscure book and make it more widely known to the world, which book would you choose and why?

Eric Kandel, The Age of Insight, (2012). Neither book, nor author, are obscure, but still not as widely read as they should be. Kandel, a Nobel-prize winning neuroscientist at Columbia, bridges the arts and sciences here cogently explaining how new findings in brain science can help us understand why the visual arts captivate us the way they do. Kandel’s book was an important resource for Cognitive Architecture and I think more people would be fascinated by its contents – if they knew of its existence.

  1. You can ask one question to any author, living or dead. What would you ask and why?

I would have to ask Henry David Thoreau what he thought of modern-day Concord, (a town where the average home price is now about $1 million) and today’s growing Green movement. I would like to know how he thought of and explained American habits of over-consumption as well as his response to seeing his work undergird the growing environmental movement in this country. I would like to hear his assessment of the contradictions inherent in these contemporaneous developments, more than a century and a half since his passing.

  1. What’s the best (or your favorite) feedback you’ve received from a reader?

The best feedback, by far, is “Your book changed how I see architecture or the built-environment generally.” When I get that, it’s super – because that was the intent!

  1. What’s the worst writing advice you’ve received from a teacher?

I can’t recall a teacher ever giving writing advice! Except on one occasion, my college adviser noted, “Your writing needs work, but not as much as many of your classmates.” Not exactly helpful. But what I do recall, at a time when I was struggling with identity, was a psychiatrist saying, “You’re an artist”, and a short while later, another psychiatrist saying, “You’re a writer.” This was terribly confusing. Could I be both? Are they one and the same? But, I am no longer troubled by such distinctions. I now see that we humans both live in our stories and our buildings, that narrative is intrinsic to the human condition, and the creative effort to create one or the other has many similarities.

For more information about Ann Sussman and her books:

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One Comment

  • Lisa Yaffee says:

    I should find a fact checker before posting, but that won’t stop me. I remember correctly, HD Thoreau’s dad invented the graphite pencil (though Wikipedia says that HD did) but they did own a factory and a pretty big house. The family unit seemed far from poor. Also if I remember correctly, his parents were living less than 2 miles from his cabin on the pond and he would go home to get mom to do his laundry and also to eat home cooked meals pretty frequently! This info is from folklorist and possible liar Horace Beck, a college prof of mine. (I didnt fact check him either…) It seems to me that HD would be familiar with the contradicitons embodied in Concord Today. He went to Harvard, which cost money, even in the 1830s. he helped found Concord Academy, which may or may not be the anscester of today’s CA, but again a school for children of privilege. If he were truly destitute he would not be able to afford to build a cabin on Emerson’s land or live without a job, even if he wanted to subsist on the land. I’m wondering if he didnt work in his dad’s pencil factory during at least some of his tenure at Walden. He was there for over 2 years, even though the book documents only 1.

    You give good Interview! Very interesting, compelling, coherent! Bravo!!!!

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