Novelist Susan Straight was born in Riverside, California, and it is the city she still calls home. It is also the place that informed and influenced the city in all seven of her novels, the fictional Rio Seco. Her most recent work, Take One Candle Light a Room: A Novel, was released in October 2010.
In this interview, we cover a great deal of ground, mostly her latest work. Her newest novel sets out to tell the tale of Fantine Antoine, who “is a travel writer, a profession that keeps her happily away from her Southern California home. When she returns to mark the fifth anniversary of the murder of her closest childhood friend, Glorette, she finds herself pulled into the tumultuous life of Glorette’s twenty-two-year-old son — and Fantine’s godson — Victor. After getting involved in a shooting, Victor has fled to New Orleans. Together with her father, Fantine follows Victor, determined to help him avoid the criminal future that he suddenly seems destined for.”
Straight was kind enough to work with me on this email interview and, as the mark of any good writer, tried to be economic with her words. In that spirit, she chose to compile her thoughts on my final five questions into one engaging and in-depth answer. I was more than happy to adjust my questions (and chose to drop one) accordingly in the final editing, and appreciate the opportunity to interview Straight. Also my thanks to author Caroline Leavitt for putting me in contact with Straight.
After reading the interview, please be sure to avail yourself of Amazon’s Take A Look feature for the book.
Of your most recent novel, Ayelet Waldman wrote “Susan Straight is the Meryl Streep of novelists…” How does one take a compliment of that caliber?
Ayelet’s line about Meryl Streep was hilarious, because I’m a short white woman who writes about communities filled with black men from the South, teenagers selling drugs, Oaxacan immigrants trying to survive, and yes, even blonde foster moms who are raising other people’s children. So I don’t know about Meryl Streep — I’ve been told variously that I “look like” Sissy Spacek, Mia Farrow, and Reese Witherspoon. It’s a compliment based on chameleon qualities, I think.
Another review at Amazon says of your work: “I tried to read TAKE ONE CANDLE LIGHT A ROOM slowly to savor the language and the feeling, but it was hard not to rush forward with the flow of story.” How hard is it to build a narrative with lush wordplay but with a story flow that also pulls the reader in, eager for the next word, the next sentence, the next page?
It’s very hard to worry about plot, and narrative flow, while enjoying the writing you create, with language and imagery that make a reader feel as if she or he is actually in the yard, or the car, with the characters. I find that reading mystery novels — my old favorites Walter Mosley, Ross MacDonald, and Dennis Lehane — helps me to see plot as an inevitable scaffold and a pull for the reader. I love books that make me stay awake late — Bathsheba Monk’s new novel, Nina Revoyr’s new novel Wingshooters, and lately, Jessica Treadway’s stories. They have excellent balance.
After you’ve written a novel, how important is it to you that the publishing house develops a cover that does justice to your words? Can you talk about the creative process (and your level of input) with Toni Scott on the most recent cover design?
For this new novel’s cover, I should start by saying Toni (Sims) Scott is my ex-husband’s first cousin, and an artist I admire immensely. Novelists often have little say over the covers; I loved my first three with Hyperion, which were done by a San Francisco artist who read the manuscripts for Sorrow’s Kitchen, Blacker Than a Thousand Midnights, and The Gettin Place, and then painted original paintings! I felt incredibly lucky that he captured the essence of the novels. For Highwire Moon, I didn’t like the hardcover, and wasn’t consulted by Houghton. But for A Million Nightingales, the hardcover was a picture of my middle daughter, age 14, and she’s mixed-race, just like the main character Moinette. For this novel, I suggested Toni’s artwork, and my editor loved this image as much as I did. To be truthful, we believe some readers may have been put off by the stark image, and the many races reflected in the “angel” figure. But if you read the novel, it’s perfect. An angel may have saved Victor, during the hurricane, and it may have been the spirits of his ancestors.
Not many people can claim that they can see the hospital of their birth from their kitchen window, is there a level of reassurance that your life has firm roots in where you’ve lived a majority of your life, or do you ever have the urge to live in other parts of the country?
I believe I may be the only living writer in America who can see that hospital, where I was born. But I think often of Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and William Faulkner. I think also of Ernest J. Gaines, who wrote of the Louisiana he left while he lived in San Francisco, and now lives where he grew up. I’m not going to lie — it’s often hard to live in the place where everyone has known you since birth, especially when times are hard and the place can be hard, too. We have a death in our family this week, a young niece, and I had coincidentally been writing about the death of a young woman and the resulting tragedy for her family. That eerie coincidence has kept me awake all week.
How did you come up with the Book Rate Book Club?
The Book Rate Book Club was my idea to celebrate the Media Mail/Book Rate at the post office! I still love the post office. And I love that my writer friends send novels I might never have otherwise seen, and they arrive in the mail. So I wanted to do that. I have to work harder to get it out there.
How does your family feel about writing about your family — for instance has it ever rankled your ex-husband that you use family history or experiences as fuel for some of your work? Are your daughters ever self-conscious, given how you share photos of them and their life as part of the tapestry of your website? Or do they understand why you want to share your family with your readers?
My ex-husband and daughters and rest of our family are fine with the website, and with my essays, because I try to be really careful to respect them and not write things that should be private, or things that cross the line. I’d struggle with memoir…
When you sit on a panel with fellow writers like Francine Prose and Mona Simpson, are there lessons or insights you take away from the exchange of ideas? This goes back several years to earlier in your career, but not many folks can say they studied with James Baldwin. How did he help shape your approach toward writing and did working with him have a bearing on how you now approach teaching yourself? Are there times that the process of teaching others how to write that you find solutions to some of your own writing challenges? You recently won the 2011 Gina Berriault Award, this is far from the first award you’ve won or been nominated for — how gratifying is it when you receive awards such as these?
In general for the last five questions, I’d like to tackle other writers I admire and what they teach me. To study with James Baldwin was a highlight of my life, because he saw things in stories that other professors did not. He taught me how important secondary characters are to work — I teach that now every year to my own students. But Jay Neugeboren was just as instrumental for me — he taught me how to line-edit my work, how to be clean in the sentences, how to make images stand out, and he was my mentor when I graduated.
Being on panels, or teaching, with writers like Mona Simpson and Francine Prose, or this spring in New Orleans with Dorothy Allison, reminds me that even though I’m isolated out here in semi-rural California, my writing community is these incredibly intelligent women whose novels I can’t wait to read when I get them, and who say smart things about plot, character, and research.
And lastly, the Gina Berriault Award meant the world to me this year, because I’d been feeling down about my own novels getting out into the world (so many books, and harder to sell!) and during a break, I read her story collection and thought about the beauty and grace of publishing these gem-like stories in small magazines, having this book come out with North Point Press (based in SF long ago) and existing in the world, no matter of sales or reviews or anything else. Just beautiful paragraphs and characters who remain in our minds forever.